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Lawmaker, officeholder pensions may fade away

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SPRINGFIELD — Illinois House and Senate members have proposed legislation in recent years that would eliminate new members’ eligibility for the General Assembly’s retirement system, but no law has been enacted thus far.

However, a growing number of lawmakers are opting out of the system on their own.

As of this week, 52 of the General Assembly’s 177 current members have opted out of the pension plan.

Meanwhile, each chamber will consider proposals in the new session to end pension benefits for future legislators.

A House bill would prohibit the retirement system from accepting future lawmakers beginning Jan 1. As part of its “grand bargain” budget package, the Senate proposes an overarching pension reform plan, including restricting the General Assembly plan from accepting any new participants after the legislation is enacted.

Under the state law, state constitutional officers, the House clerk and assistant clerk, and the Senate secretary and assistant secretary are also eligible to participate after serving 10 years. However, future officials in these positions would not be eligible under the Senate’s proposal.

John Patterson, spokesman for Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, said the legislation is only focused on future members because of a 2015 Illinois Supreme Court decision on pensions.

“We are trying to put together an effort in the Senate to recognize where we think there is some common ground, both among the members and in the decision that the courts have made, to see if we can put together some savings,” Patterson said.

The Supreme Court ruled in May 2015 that, according to the Illinois Constitution, pension benefits for current members cannot be “diminished or impaired.” Lawmakers had attempted to reduce pension benefits in an effort to minimize the state’s high pension debt.

State Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, is a co-sponsor on the current House proposal and co-sponsored a previous version.

Butler, who opted out of the retirement plan after being appointed to his seat in 2015, said he does not believe legislators should receive a pension.

“It’s a lucrative pension. ... I don’t see where people in the General Assembly really should get a pension for the work they’re doing on behalf of the people,” Butler said. “Members haven’t really felt the need to eliminate it because they’re benefiting from it, frankly. I don’t hold that against any member.”

Of the 17 newly elected lawmakers this year, 12 have opted out, while five have yet to decide whether to accept legislative pensions. New lawmakers have up to two years to decide whether to participate.

The number of lawmakers choosing to opt out drastically increased from seven members in fiscal year 2012 to 23 members in fiscal 2013. Since then, numbers have steadily increased.

State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, opted out of the retirement system after being elected in 2012.

Manar said he decided to opt out to remain consistent with his decision to not participate in the retirement system in his previous positions as mayor of Bunker Hill and chairman of the Macoupin County Board.

Manar said he supports the Senate’s proposed pension reform legislation.

He also was a co-sponsor of an unsuccessful bill in the last General Assembly that would have prohibited new senators from participating.

Butler said he hopes legislation to eliminate pensions for lawmakers will be considered in the new session, but a law is more likely to be enacted in future General Assemblies.

“I’ve become more encouraged ... because I think every year we have more members opt out,” he said. “It’s certainly something that is on the radar.”

State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, introduced another House bill this week that would prohibit new legislators elected or appointed after Nov. 6, 2018, from participating in the retirement system.


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